A difficult text re-pondered. How do oppressed women hear these words of Jesus?
I recently preached on one of my least favorite passages in the entire bible: Matthew 5:38-42.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
At the invitation to preach on this text, I initially said no. “Nope, I’ll pick my own passage. Thank you very much,” I quickly told the one who invited me. I went on to spend the better part of a week looking for a passage to preach on. I prayed and asked God what I should do. As I prayed, the invitation from God came like a gentle whisper. God invited me to this text in Matthew 5 because there was something in it for me. There was something about God that I needed to see, a message from God that I needed to hear. As I sat down to write the sermon, the first order of business was to identify my resistance to the text.
Why was this my least favorite passage?
Why was this my least favorite passage?
Like all of us, I brought the lens of my experience to the text. Specifically, my experience as a woman in ministry. In my adult life, I have experienced oppression in my relationship with the church. I am defining “oppression” as unjust constraints placed on people, most often people in the minority. For most of my former ministry career, I was invited to preach sermons and teach bible lessons in children’s ministry, student ministry, parent meetings and any other classes outside of the Sunday Service. But because of my gender, I was not invited to preach sermons or teach bible studies on Sunday mornings during the worship service. Because of my gender, I was not invited to lead a prayer in the service or participate in an Elder’s meetings. These spaces were reserved for men only. Over the years, as I asked repeatedly about the reasons for these prohibitions, I was given no consistent scriptural support. Many complementarian churches have done this type of exegetical gymnastics with 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12, deciding when and where these prohibitions should apply, and when and where they should not apply. I had many male leaders of complementarian churches even admit to me, “Kelly, I would love for you to preach at our church and I see no reason, from scripture, why you should not preach here. But imagine what the people in our congregation would do?” As a woman in ministry, I struggled daily with what to do in the face of these constraints.
Image: Edmiston photo
As I read and re-read Matthew 5:38-42, I identified the most with “slapped one.” I found myself insulted by the oppression I had faced and even insulted by the words of Jesus in this text. I initially took his words as a command to passively and silently take the slap. But this didn’t seem to fit with what I knew about Jesus. Surely Jesus did not expect me to be bullied, harmed or silenced by this text. This did not line up with the heart of Jesus for the downcast, for the oppressed, and for the poor. This did not line up with what I knew of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God from Isaiah 61 which Jesus came announcing.
Surely Jesus did not expect me to be bullied, harmed or silenced by this text. This did not line up with the heart of Jesus for the downcast, for the oppressed, and for the poor. This did not line up with what I knew of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God from Isaiah 61 which Jesus came announcing.
As I studied the text, I was reminded of the honor/shame culture out of which the bible was written. To be slapped on the cheek was to be backhanded and treated as an inferior. (Kingdom Ethics, David Gushee and Glen Stassen). To turn the other cheek is to say, “If you hit me again, you have to hit me with your palm.” In that culture, turning the other cheek was an act of resistance that asserted one’s human dignity and equality in the face of the oppressor. It was a way to non-violently resist by saying, “You must treat me as an equal and not an inferior!”
In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus is not calling for silence, passivity or in-action on the part of the “slapped one.” This is a call to action. This is a call to assert, non-violently, our own human dignity and equality in the face of oppressive systems and people.
For some women, this will look like staying and serving their congregation, while pushing and challenging the system. For others, asserting their human dignity and equality will look like leaving their churches.
This text is a good reminder to the people of God that we are still called to action in the face of injustice. For anyone experiencing the “slap” of any system or any person, be assured that you are called to faithful, non-violent action that asserts your own human dignity and equality.